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The Fight To Change Attitudes Toward COVID-19 Vaccines In The U.K.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Something striking has happened in the United Kingdom in the last several months. Millions of people who were hesitant or against taking the COVID-19 vaccine have changed their minds, according to surveys. As part of NPR's series on fighting disinformation, London correspondent Frank Langfitt visited a mosque-turned-vaccination center at the cutting edge of that battle.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Shenaz Sajan (ph) attends the Al-Abbas Islamic Center. It's a mosque in the English city of Birmingham, where she works as a caregiver, so she was eligible for the vaccine soon after it began rolling out in December. We spoke through masks in the mosque sermon hall.

SHENAZ SAJAN: I work for the St. Mary's Hospice, and they asked me, oh, Shenaz, are you going to have it? And straight away, I just jumped and said, no, of course not. I'm not having it.

LANGFITT: Were you concerned that it could have bad health effects or that there would be something wrong with it?

SAJAN: Yes, hugely, because there were so many rumors going around about the DNA would damage the DNA or interfere with it. Every time you opened your phone in the morning, there'd be these messages, you know, coming to you saying don't have it.

LANGFITT: Other false claims seem designed to scare away Muslims like Shenaz, like the one about the vaccine being made with pork product, which is forbidden under Islam.

SAJAN: And if you have these messages bombarded at you, you know, from morning till night, somewhere, you know, along the line, you just think maybe they are right.

LANGFITT: The flood of disinformation found fertile ground among some Black Britons and South Asians whose ancestors grew up under the British Empire and who were more likely to distrust the system here. Murtaza Master, a pharmacist who also attends the mosque, says the history of using minorities for drug trials added to people's skepticism.

MURTAZA MASTER: Even with the COVID vaccine, it was mentioned in the media that they were going to test it in Africa, and that doesn't help. Those stories resonate very highly in ethnic groups.

LANGFITT: And Murtaza says some minorities have been so frustrated with what they see as unequal treatment here. It frames the way they see the government in general.

MASTER: One person, he said, I've been here 20 years. You want me to trust a system where I've worked very hard, and I've still not been promoted. And I see others getting promoted.

LANGFITT: So it's a general distrust and a feeling that the system overall isn't fair, ergo, I'm not going to trust the vaccine.

MASTER: I'm saying that plays a part in it.

LANGFITT: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tried to counter disinformation with statements like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Look; I've got no inhibitions about getting a vaccine. But the anti-vax is total nonsense. You should definitely get a vaccine.

LANGFITT: But the prime minister couldn't persuade people like Shenaz. She pointed out that Johnson downplayed the pandemic when it first emerged and then landed in the ICU himself with COVID. And his government bungled its early response, leading the U.K. to the highest COVID death toll in Europe.

SAJAN: You lose confidence - don't you? - in the leaders. So then you do then have to get your confidence back by listening to people who are close to you and who are concerned about you.

SHEIKH NURU MOHAMMED: My name is Sheikh Nuru Mohammed.

LANGFITT: Sheikh Nuru who has served as the imam at the Al-Abbas mosque here in Birmingham for more than four years. As the government began rolling out the vaccine, congregants bombarded him with questions about it.

MOHAMMED: The first one is Sheikh Nuru Mohammed, is this halal? So halal meaning it is lawful as per the teachings of Islam or not. No. 2, we are here to live and die. Why do we have to go for vaccination? Everything is in the hand of God, and he is the one who manages us.

LANGFITT: Sheikh Nuru drew on Islamic scripture for answers, emphasizing that good health is a gift from God. And during his online Friday sermons, he hammered away at disinformation.

MOHAMMED: We should not allow conspiracy theories and fake news control and manage us. Let's rely on the experts, not someone through something on Facebook. And let us take advantage of this vaccine when the opportunities are given to us.

LANGFITT: The government planned ahead and acquired millions of vaccine doses, but millions of Britons were still skeptical. With the enthusiastic approval of the National Health Service, Nuru turned the mosque into a vaccination center in January, the first of its kind in Britain. But maybe the most effective thing he did was to get the vaccine himself.

MOHAMMED: When I took it, it wasn't that - even I had some close friends who said, why? Why did you rush for it? Should have waited - let's see the reactions. I said, no, no, no, there is nothing to wait about.

LANGFITT: Did you also know when you did that that if it went well, it would convince a lot of people here to get it? Was that part of the strategy?

MOHAMMED: Absolutely. I mean, people wanted to see the reaction to make their mind.

LANGFITT: It paid off. Hundreds of congregants have received doses, and the mosque has delivered more than 15,000 doses to people in the area. Shenaz says Sheikh Nuru changed minds, including hers.

SAJAN: I think the imam plays a very important role. We see him three or four times a week. We have a lot of trust in him. And the fact that now that the mosque has made itself a hub for the vaccination, I think it's really, really incredible.

LANGFITT: Hello. Happy vaccination day. How'd the jab go?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, fantastic. Didn't feel a thing.

LANGFITT: It wasn't just Sheikh Nuru railing against disinformation that changed thinking. People in the nearby community also saw friends and family members get the vaccine and remain healthy. Fahmida Begum said her mother, who arrived at her appointment with the help of a cane, is a good example.

FAHMIDA BEGUM: At the beginning, she was very hesitant to have it. But then her sisters have had it. Other family members have had it. And I think when there's word of mouth and people haven't had side effects, it's just a bit of a confidence boost.

PARTH PATEL: We've seen a really big shift in vaccine hesitancy.

LANGFITT: Parth Patel is a physician and research fellow at University College London. He's analyzed a national survey, which tracked attitudes towards the vaccine.

PATEL: It's about 86% of people who were unsure about taking a vaccine in December have gone on to change their minds.

LANGFITT: In other words, this gap, which was especially pronounced among South Asians and Black Britons, has almost disappeared. Patel thinks one reason is local leadership and says Sheikh Nuru's approach is instructive.

PATEL: Using the mosque as a vaccination center, I think that's really - sort of significant event. It's about where is the message coming from? It's about trust. It's - is it the government telling you to get a vaccine, or is it the mosque up the road? That's quite different.

LANGFITT: Since Nuru's Mosque opened as a vaccination center, more than 50 others have offered vaccines around the country. Still, there were hurdles. As the partnerships emerged, some congregants questioned why the mosques were working with the government. Qari Asim chairs a national advisory board for mosques and imams.

QARI ASIM: When you are constantly urging people to take a vaccine, you know, people are challenging you at times, saying, are you proxy for the government? Are you getting paid, you know, by the government to deliver this message? But as imams, we believe that this is not about the government or about the NHS. This is about saving lives.

LANGFITT: Asim says people have since warmed to the idea, and he points out many congregants were more comfortable getting shots at their mosque than they might have been at a local doctor's office.

ASIM: If you have an elderly Muslim lady coming in and there is a Muslim nurse who's providing the vaccine, then I think it helps people to connect. It helps with breaking down some of those barriers.

LANGFITT: Asim says the tide began to turn in February.

ASIM: Locally, in some of the mosques, in one day, there are 150 people coming in who might not otherwise have come. The messenger is as important as the message in this pandemic.

LANGFITT: And there's another lesson about attitudes towards vaccines. People learn through watching what happens to others, and public opinion can change very fast.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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